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What You Need to Know About Don Hertzfeldt, the Animator Behind that Brilliant, Disturbing ‘Simpsons’ Couch Gag

What You Need to Know About Don Hertzfeldt, the Animator Behind that Brilliant, Disturbing 'Simpsons' Couch Gag

In recent years, some of “The Simpsons'” best moments have come before the opening credits, especially since the show has started leasing out its couch gags to outside animators. The one that opened the 25th season premiere was especially memorable, with Don Hertzfeldt’s scraggly line drawings evoking a feeling rarely experienced while watching the adventures of Springfield’s first family: existential dread.

For “Simpsons” (or “Sampsans”) viewers with no previous exposure to Hertzfeldt’s films, the experience must have been akin to getting hit with a 2 x 4, but fans of Hertzfeldt’s films, including the Oscar-nominated “Rejected” and the three shorts compiled into the feature-length “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” are intimately familiar with his skill at evoking complex emotions with deliberately crude drawings. Hand-drawn animation has been abandoned by every major studio, but Hertzfeldt still works almost entirely by himself, not only drawing each frame (on paper!) but also devising labor-intensive in-camera effects like this spectacular cosmic vista from the climax of “The Meaning of Life“: 

If you’re curious about Hertzfeldt’s work, or just trying to figure out what in God’s name that couch gag was all about, “Rejected” is an excellent place to start. Not only is it brilliant and hilarious, but it’s also a signpost marking the transition from the gonzo humor of early shorts like “Billy’s Balloon” and “Lily & Jim” to the startling range of the “Billogy,” three interrelated shorts — “Everything Will Be OK,” “I Am So Proud of You,” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” — named for their stick-figure protagonist. (Yes, the final short and the feature compiling all three have the same name.) Watch as Hertzfeldt takes a funny initial idea and spins it into a terrifying contemplation of mortality and the end of the world:

Although Hertzfeldt recently shut down his online shop to concentrate on finishing a new film, his films are available via DVD collections — Volume 2 contains the complete Billogy — are available with the purchase of his graphic novel, “The End of the World,” for purchase and rental on Vimeo, and through his generously endowed YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter as well, so you don’t miss stuff like this: 

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